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Former EKU basketball player Willie Cruz now NBA athletic performance coach for Houston Rockets

Like most kids who grow up playing basketball, Willie Cruz dreamed of reaching the NBA.

He made it. Only not as a player.

Cruz, a former Eastern Kentucky University basketball player, is now the athletic performance coach for the Houston Rockets.

Cruz was born on the shores of Lake Ontario, in the “Flower City” – Rochester, New York.

Willie Cruz, a former EKU basketball player, is now the athletic performance coach for the Houston Rockets.

When he was 12, his mother moved him and his two sisters west to Harrison Township, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. Cruz became a basketball star at L’anse Creuse High School. His play on the AAU circuit captured the attention of several college coaches, including then-EKU head man Jeff Neubauer.

Neubauer brought Cruz to campus for a visit. “I felt at home,” Cruz said.

Cruz was also impressed with EKU’s sports management program. “With academics being a priority for my mother, it was an easy decision to sign a letter-of-intent with the Colonels,” he said.

Cruz came to EKU in the fall of 2009. On a veteran team that featured stars like Justin Stommes, Josh Taylor and Joshua Jones, he played sparingly throughout the non-conference portion of his freshman year.

However, four games into Ohio Valley Conference play, following a loss at Jacksonville State, Neubauer shocked everyone – including Cruz – by inserting the rookie into the starting lineup for a road game at Tennessee Tech.

He did not disappoint.

Cruz responded with a season-high 19 points on perfect 8-of-8 shooting from the field. He sank two clutch free throws down the stretch to lift the Colonels to a 78-73 win over Tennessee Tech in Cookeville.

That game remains one of Cruz’s favorite memories from his time at EKU.

But another moment also resonates. It happened at the Pinnacles in Berea.

The Colonels were there for a team-building exercise. The mission: get up and down the mountain with a teammate on your back the entire time.

Willie Cruz as a basketball player at EKU.

Halfway through the exercise, it started raining. Guys started cramping up. But Cruz and the Colonels pulled it off.

“As a performance coach now, I value the lesson that experience taught me,” Cruz said. “We all have more in us than we think.”

Following his time at EKU, Cruz moved to New York City to work as a strength and conditioning coach at Fordham University. At a Sports Science convention in Chicago, Cruz had a chance encounter with a man named Dr. Donnie Strack, who then was the Director of Medical Services for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The two exchanged contact information.

“You never know who you are going to meet who may change the course of your life,” Cruz said. “Life could be a little different had I not made the simple gesture of smiling and introducing myself to Dr. Strack.”

After earning a master’s degree in media management from Fordham’s Gabelli School of Business, Cruz received an email from Dr. Strack, urging him to apply for a position with the Thunder.

Cruz did apply, and after going through the interview process, he accepted a spot on the Thunder’s Human and Performance staff.

“Leaving New York City, and my Fordham family, was a tough decision, but the right one,” Cruz said. “Opportunities to work for a world-class NBA organization are fleeting.”

Cruz worked in the Thunder organization for two years, completing another master’s degree in exercise science (strength and conditioning) at Edith Cowan University in the process.

“My best memories working for the Thunder center around the professionalism and standards of excellence Sam Presti instilled in the organization,” Cruz said. “The players and staff – people like Dr. Mike Davis – had a significant impact on my growth personally and professionally.”

In the summer of 2019, Cruz took his current position as the Rockets’ Athletic Performance Coach.

In that role, Cruz designs and implements year-around strength, conditioning and injury preventative programs to optimize the overall athletic performance of Rockets players.

Former EKU basketball player Willie Cruz is the athletic performance coach for the Houston Rockets.

“We collect, analyze, and utilize performance assessment data to inform individual programming,” Cruz added. “This is a collaborative effort with our Director of Athletic Performance Javair Gillett, who oversees the department.”

Cruz takes pride in the role he serves.

“The NBA is a challenging and dynamic environment that excites me,” he said. “I enjoy servicing our players, and I try to make a positive impact on them every day. I pride myself on getting the extra 1 and 2 percent out of them through education and pushing them outside of their comfort zone.

“With that being said, our guys are human and normal people, so it’s a balance of knowing when to push and when to meet them in the middle. Building player relationships through authentic communication and transparency allows us to find that balance with each player.”

“I’m extremely fortunate to be a part of the Houston Rocket’s winning culture,” Cruz added. “It’s energizing going into work every day surrounded by very smart, hardworking individuals. I love working for the Rockets and living in the city of Houston.”

On March 11, 2020, things changed. For Cruz, and for many others.

Cruz and the Rockets were on a flight from Houston to Los Angeles for a game against the Lakers the following night. Word began to spread on the flight that a player in the Thunder/Jazz game had tested positive for COVID-19, and that the game had been canceled.

It was actually Dr. Strack – one of Cruz’s mentors – who made the decisive, and now historic, move that night at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City.

Moments before tipoff, Dr. Strack – now the Thunder’s Vice President of Human and Player Performance – sprinted onto the court and abruptly delayed the game. He called the officials over. Both head coaches soon joined the meeting. Eventually, Willie Cruz the players left the floor. The game had been canceled.

The NBA promptly suspended its season until further notice.

Cruz has stayed positive during the COVID-19 quarantine. He has also stayed busy.

“We still have a job to do not knowing when we will resume play,” Cruz said. “The goal is to keep players active, engaged, and ready to hit the ground running when the NBA comes back.”

That means Zoom workouts. The Rockets Twitter account has also featured Cruz in videos that help fans stay active while at home.

“Technology has allowed us to be really creative with routines while everyone is home,” he said.

From Eastern Kentucky University

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